Some teens spend more than 9 hours a day on social media. Nearly a quarter say they’re online almost constantly.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of social media to most of our kids. So it’s unrealistic to ask teens, particularly older teens, to forgo social media entirely.
Much of their lives are lived online. It’s how they connect with friends, make plans, coordinate schedules and share their dreams. Understanding this is probably the first and most important step in learning how to encourage our teens to use social networks safely and in moderation.
Social media may have an unexpected upside. Rates of teen sexual activity, drug use and alcohol abuse in the US have been steadily dropping for years. Some experts credit social media for keeping teens relatively safe and sound at home.
However, there is a different set of dangers. Pornography is now accessible with just a click or two. Instead of boys and girls passing notes to each other in class, many are sexting. And while it’s easy to connect with friends online, it’s equally easy to connect with strangers who have unsavoury motives.
Yet, there is hope. Not only do we have the ability to curb our children’s social networking, we can also influence how they think about social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Parents are the most often cited source of advice and the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behaviour.”
In order to wield that power wisely, we first have to know what’s out there.
Parents are the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behaviour.
THE WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The realm of social media is constantly shifting; new apps and services pop up all the time. The sheer volume can be dizzying, especially so for busy parents. Apart from Facebook and Twitter, relatively younger apps Snapchat and Instagram are popular with the younger crowd. In Singapore, 85% of 16 to 24-year-olds use Instagram, while 58% use Snapchat.
Snapchat perhaps is the most notorious because what’s posted “disappears” shortly after. Mostly popular with teens because they could be silly or awkward with no lasting record, the main thing to note is that it is used frequently for sexting. The truth is, those “disappearing” posts don’t always disappear. A screen shot can allow them to live forever, even with app developers taking steps to protect their users.
Instagram is also a photo and video-sharing service with stories that disappear after 24 hours. It has a broad, intergenerational appeal like Facebook. It also tries to remove nude images if users post them.
However, a 2017 Royal Society of Public Health report titled #StatusOfMind concluded that Instagram is most detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing. While enabling self-expression, it may also increase feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, and FOMO (fear of missing out).
Then there are messaging apps, like Telegram or the ubiquitous WhatsApp. Teens use them to text, and share content with their friends without limits, because there’s little way for parents to monitor everything that’s being communicated. These apps may also open the door to communication with strangers.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Given the web of social media, what can a parent do? Thankfully, we do have some tools.
1. Enable open communication
Talking with our young children and teens about the dangers and distractions these apps bring will help. Be aware of the networks they’re using (or want to use), and discuss the possible dangers of social media. For example, it’s addictive, can trigger big emotions such as feelings of inadequacy, sadness or jealousy, or lead to unhealthy comparisons.
2. Set clear and consistent guidelines
We should create ground rules for acceptable social media behaviour in our family. Set limits on internet usage—insist that devices must be shut down at a designated time. Delineate some screen-free family time, such as mealtimes. Try to make sure that all online communication is done in the home’s common spaces—no bedrooms or bathrooms.
3. Teach responsible usage
Discuss what using of social media responsibly would look like. Engage them to articulate the differences between being controlled by social media and controlling their participation in this realm. Where do they see themselves on this continuum?
4. Use family-friendly software
There are reliable filtering apps for various devices that monitor and block sites we don’t want our kids to access. Many send reports to parents regarding online activity. Some allow us to manage the time our children are online.
5. Leverage social media too
Instead of spying on them online, social media can let us interact with them to gain insight on what they like and what’s important to them. However, we must be sensitive about the comments we leave on their posts. Always ask, “How would they feel if I said this in public?” or “Would I be comfortable saying this to them in front of their friends?”
Social media can be an avenue for us to interact with them.
There’s no fool proof way to protect our teens but we can and definitely should pass down wisdom to our children. It’s a little like driving — we can teach them to follow the rules and do everything right, and bad things can still happen. But with lots of love, patience, and consistent communication with our teens, we can ward off those potential dangers.
Adapted from A Parent’s Guide to Today's Technology.
© 2018 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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Claire McCarthy, “Teen drug use is down: Better Parenting, or more smartphones?” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, March 21, 2017.
“Snapchat and Instagram usage in Singapore soars as people migrate onto photo-sharing platforms,” French Chamber Singapore, 28 September 2016
“Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health,” Royal Society for Public Health, 19 May 2017